The last time a swarm of TV cameras, talking heads and newspaper reporters descended on St. Louis, they were all abuzz about Sarah Palin. Leading up to the vice-presidential debate at Washington University in October 2008, Barack Obama characterized the difference between the policies of John McCain and George W. Bush as "lipstick on a pig," an ill-received remark that some said was a veiled reference to the soon-to-be ex-Alaska governor.
Next Tuesday President Obama will throw out the first pitch at the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, and an even larger media horde will be on hand. Nearly 2,000 journalists have been issued credentials for the game and its peripheral events. With the action set to be broadcast to 226 countries in twelve languages and more than 100 million households, the television audience has also increased substantially.
And this time around, it's the city itself that is sporting lipstick.
While no World Series or Final Four will be decided next week, the All-Star Game is the most important sporting event in St. Louis' recent history. City leaders are banking that the game will have a lasting impact on the local economy. If all goes well, they say, the thousands of tourists and executives visiting St. Louis and the millions of viewers tuning in to watch the spectacle will be awed by all the city has to offer.
Naturally, a critical part of the game plan is dispelling the lingering stereotype that downtown remains the same urban wasteland it was when Escape from New York was filmed on St. Louis' streets. As a result, the city has undergone a substantial facelift in the hope of impressing visitors. And, like a pretty-but-pimple-faced girl primping for prom night, the makeup is being applied in layers.
Certain changes, such as the overhaul of Old Post Office Plaza, are substantial and impressive. But in other instances, like the Ballpark Village softball field, they are merely Band-Aids applied to mask the city's flaws during its week in the national spotlight.
"St. Louis is like Moscow before Nixon visited in 1972," jokes KMOX (1120 AM) radio host Charlie Brennan. "Moscow put their best face on; it was kind of a détente. They put new sod down all over, and flowers were planted 72 hours in advance. The city never looked better, but the Western journalists found it funny."
Will the notoriously fickle national media be taken by the elaborate makeover? Will the changes attract businesses and help reestablish the city as a regional power? Does Cardinal Nation care? Or are they far more concerned about how Albert Pujols will fare in the Home Run Derby? The answers may not be clear for years to come, but, for better or worse, St. Louis is putting its best face forward for the midsummer classic.
Perhaps the most illustrative example of St. Louis' concern with keeping up appearances as it struggles to sustain development during the recession is the case of Ballpark Lofts Building No. 8.
The building, located a few hundred feet west of Busch Stadium, is a ramshackle warehouse slated to become upscale loft apartments with views of Stan "The Man" Musial Drive. In what local developer Kevin McGowan describes as an "NFL draft-style auction," nearly $9 million worth of the condos were bought in about 40 minutes in May 2008.
Despite the successful sale, fourteen months later, Ballpark Lofts is still just a dilapidated pile of bricks on a prime piece of downtown real estate. Many of the windows overlooking the stadium are either broken or boarded up. The name "Waldo" is spray-painted in red-and-white bubble letters on a corner facing Highway 40.
"We started construction in about November, did all the demo and the abatement, then the economy crashed and lenders ran for the hills," recounts McGowan, president of Ballpark Lofts' proprietor Blue Urban and two other development companies.
Under pressure from the city, McGowan set out (at last report, unsuccessfully) to spruce up his eyesore in the easiest way possible: by covering it up. "We're trying to get some nice colorful banners, maybe two stories tall, and wrap the building," he says. "Short of that, there isn't much we can do."
There have been several times in the past when St. Louis was desperate to make a good impression, notes Gerald Early, professor of humanities at Washington University who writes about baseball and St. Louis history.
Early compares the scale of the All-Star preparations to the 1904 World's Fair. Back then, much of the Central West End and Forest Park was built to accommodate visitors. Much later, in the years leading up the 1966 All-Star Game (the last one held in St. Louis), the city razed its entire Chinatown and displaced almost 300 people in order to build Busch Stadium I. This time, Early says, St. Louis seems more preoccupied with looking good for the TV cameras.
"Most of it's pretty cosmetic and superficial. It's meant to make a showcase of the city for a very short time," Early says. "It's sort of like a cartoon where you see people sweeping the dirt under a rug. That's exactly what they're doing. You come in and say, 'It's a clean and lovely room,' but the dirt is still there."
In some instances, the city's preparations date back years and include some of the most striking changes to the downtown area, construction of Busch Stadium II notwithstanding. The renovated Old Post Office Plaza on Locust Street and Citygarden, the shiny new sculpture park on the Gateway Mall, are two notable public-works projects that were completed in time to wow the All-Star crowds.
These projects, says Rollin Stanley, the city's former director of planning and urban design, signal a positive trend, especially when coupled with planned improvements like the Kiel Opera House and the fact that nearly 12,000 people moved downtown over the past five years.
Then again, adds Stanley, the entire St. Louis region must alter its mindset to achieve meaningful change. "What hurts is the region's inability to look inward and see how they're growing. They're stealing from Peter to pay Paul. It's like Bernie Madoff," Stanley muses. "I don't work there anymore so I guess I can say this: If we keep building the St. Charleses of the world and mowing down corn crops in areas that were under four feet of water in 1993, the region will never succeed."
Stanley, who left the city in 2008 to take a similar post in Montgomery County, Maryland, says the project with the most promise is Ballpark Village, the much-maligned mixed-use development north of Busch Stadium. "A lot of cities would kill for that kind of opportunity," he says. "Even successful cities that have expanded outward can't find the land and assets to pull off that kind of a large transformative change."
But so far, Ballpark Village has nothing to show for itself except for a modest softball field and parking lot in a downtown already thick with asphalt and cars.
When plans for the Ballpark Village project were first announced in 2006 during the Cardinals' World Series run, it was billed as a $600 million entertainment-and-business district that would revitalize the area around the stadium. It was supposed to have been completed in time for the All-Star Game.
Instead, there has been more than two years' worth of delays. For much of that time the site was a massive crater, filled with litter and muddy water, earning the pond the derisive nickname "Lake DeWitt," after Bill DeWitt III, the Cardinals' president who championed the project. Under pressure to fill the hole in time for the All-Star Game, DeWitt had the parking lot and a softball field built as stand-ins.
"I had been thinking about what we can do in the interim and thought: That's a natural. We've got the field crew, and they can help us with some of the details," DeWitt says. "We thought of having it be green grass and have it be an open space for touch football or throwing catch, but we thought something a little more organized might make sense."
DeWitt says the temporary improvements cost more than $300,000. Whenever construction on the actual Ballpark Village begins, adds DeWitt, the parking lot will remain, but the softball field will be bulldozed. The timetable for completion remains unclear.
"It's hard to say when it will be done because so much of it depends on the bond market," DeWitt explains. "How long that takes is somewhat speculative. We hope to break ground at the end of the year, and if not, we'll look into next year."
The softball field does make for a picturesque prop. It's easy to imagine a TV camera trained, say at sunset, on the downtown skyline, then slowly zooming in on a group of kids playing ball on the idyllic little diamond. From the broadcast booth, native son Joe Buck and ex-Cardinal Tim McCarver will surely remind the world that the Redbird faithful are widely regarded as the finest in the land, and that St. Louis is a veritable baseball utopia.
There is also a good chance that many pundits will cast the softball field of dreams in a different light.
"The All-Star Game is the place where commentators and columnists kind of take stock," reflects sportscaster Bob Costas, a long-time St. Louisan. "There have always been skeptics about stadium financing, even in the best of times. Now skepticism has increased, and I'm sure you'll hear about Ballpark Village: 'Where is it? When will it be here?' People may even bring the Yankees and their ticket structure and the empty seats at Yankee Stadium into it."
"Columnists are going to use St. Louis as metaphor for the economic downturn and what baseball has to do with it," agrees Will Leitch, founder of the sports blog Deadspin. "You'll see a ton of those stories. Some Mike Lupica equivalent will be sitting at the Drury Inn, and he'll say, 'When you think about baseball's economic woes, look no further than outside my hotel window.'"
As Costas and Leitch point out, the way the media portrays the city relative to its coverage of the game will play a significant role in determining whether St. Louis was successful in its makeover.
Event planners understand that winning over the nation's sportswriters is a tall order. "They can get cynical," says Jim Cloar, president of the Downtown St. Louis Partnership. "Maybe something will be said tongue-in-cheek."
Last year, for instance, MLB Network announcer Matt Vasgersian remarked during a live broadcast (one in which his hometown San Diego Padres were losing to the Cardinals) that he was fed up with St. Louis. "It's hotter than shit.... We get our asses kicked every time we come here.... I'm not coming here next year." He also instructed fans at Busch to "get in your El Camino and drive back to the Ozarks."
Later, in an interview with Deadspin, Vasgersian slammed the city again: "I hate downtown St. Louis," he said. "Build a friggin' convenience store somewhere in downtown St. Louis. It's a bad hotel town; in fact, it's a really bad hotel town."
An MLB spokesman did not respond to Riverfront Times' requests for an interview with Vasgersian, but his comments, which he later claimed were made in jest, do offer insight into the group the city is trying to charm.
"Maybe MLB announcers shouldn't be your target audience for tourism," quips Leitch, a vocal Cardinals supporter who was raised in Mattoon, Illinois. "They're more like traveling salesmen. They get frustrated that their continental breakfast ends at 10 a.m. They'll be cranky about any tiny little thing that affects their lives."
For the most part, event planners agree.
"Hopefully we'll do a good enough job of getting them out and around to make a good impression," says Ann Chance, the city's director of special events. "You can lead them to water, but you can't make them drink."
On the other hand, the crowd that nearly everyone agrees the city cannot afford to lose is the business executives who will be in town for the week's festivities.
Marla Miller, Major League Baseball's senior vice president of special events and the All-Star Game coordinator, says the league has already reserved almost 4,000 downtown hotel rooms for corporate sponsors, players and front-office officials.
With so many high rollers around, the All-Star Game is being treated like a weeklong sales pitch.
"A lot of people who will attend this are major players at a corporate level and a government level," says Kitty Ratcliffe, president of the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission. "The endgame, obviously, is to get them to come back for another reason — either for leisure visits, or to bring a convention group, or a corporate meeting or even to relocate a business."
Dick Fleming, CEO of the Regional Chamber and Growth Association, says his organization is hosting a group of fifteen "national site-selection executives," advisers hired by companies looking to relocate or expand to new cities, for three days during the week. "Over half of them are working on active deals where St. Louis and the region are being considered for a location of a significant number of jobs," Fleming boasts.
The group will tour the city and take a helicopter ride "to see the whole region from the air" and end with a big luncheon before MLB's red-carpet parade through downtown. Attending the event, Fleming says, will be "business executives and civic leaders from here," and "a cross section of owners of MLB teams and senior executives of sponsors of MLB."
The party will be cohosted by Costas and St. Louis' own Cedric the Entertainer. Fleming describes the curious pairing of the straight-laced Olympics announcer and the occasionally raunchy standup comedian as "a wonderful opportunity to let people know this area is friendly and welcoming."
Still, not everyone is enamored with the city's strategy for courting investors.
"Having these big kinds of events, for people who live in the city, it doesn't cut it as far as ultimately attracting business over the long haul," says Early, the Wash. U. professor. "We have to improve our public schools. We have to do something with infrastructure here in the city, particularly all the abandoned homes. The quality of living in the city has to be dealt with."
Event planners predict that roughly 250,000 people will visit downtown during All-Star Week. In baseball-mad St. Louis, the five-day "FanFest" portion of the event, which features baseball exhibits and opportunities for autograph-seekers, has already sold more than 105,000 tickets, exceeding the sales in both New York and San Francisco, the last two host cities.
Many of the city's preparations are geared toward luring tourists back again next season. "It's just like having company over," Cloar says. "Pride spurs you to clean up your house."
Touchups for the guests' arrival include repaving the streets around the stadium, an increased emphasis on cleaning up litter and mowing down weeds. As part of its "presence program," MLB has also distributed several hundred banners similar to the one being sought by McGowan to veil Ballpark Lofts.
"It's big-time," enthuses Alderwoman Phyllis Young, whose ward includes Busch Stadium. "If we put on a good show, it sells tourism for downtown and St. Louis in general for a long time. The thing is to get people here. We have a great story, it just doesn't get out enough."
Police say "hundreds" of St. Louis' finest will be patrolling the streets. Metro, meanwhile, has temporarily rolled back the crippling service cuts approved by voters earlier this year and will operate MetroLink on a "rush-hour schedule" throughout All-Star Week.
At the same time, visitors are being encouraged to walk back and forth between their hotels and the happenings at Busch Stadium, America's Center and the Scottrade Center. "People staying at hotels downtown will be surprised that St. Louis is a walking town," Miller says.
To keep anyone from straying too far north of Washington Avenue, several guides will be stationed throughout the area. "They'll have little PDAs that are linked to a dispatcher," Cloar explains. "They can print out directions on a cash-register-tape-size piece of paper."
The blue-and-green street signs that point in the general direction of venues and attractions have also been updated, removing, among other things, the name of St. Louis Centre, downtown's failed shopping mall.
But in a city where the suggestion of walking anywhere other than to the car is usually greeted with a groan, the notion of several hundred thousand tourists hoofing it in the mid-July heat and humidity — the temperature during the '66 All-Star Game was a stifling 103 degrees — may seem a bit absurd.
Even Miller concedes that natives will likely wind up "driving back and forth the way they like to do."
Long-term impact aside, the Regional Chamber and Growth Association estimates the game and its peripheral events will pump $60 million into the area's economy. "All of the restaurants and the major retail establishments in the downtown area are going to have a lot more people walking by their front door," Ratcliffe says. "I'd expect they'd all benefit in some way."
But the fact that visitors are being encouraged to walk — catching a cab in St. Louis, after all, is often more difficult than catching a knuckleball — makes it unlikely that neighborhoods outside of the city's core will profit nearly as much.
There are also skeptics of the supposed short-term economic benefits of mega sporting events.
Dennis Coates, a sports economist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, studies the impact that special events such as the Super Bowl and the All-Star Game have on the economies of their host cities. Coates analyzed sales tax revenue and other data, and found that in virtually every instance cities either broke even or lost money.
In most cases, Coates explains, spending by people who live in the city decreases dramatically during the hoopla, and the cost of preparing for the event usually negates any earnings. "If you look at it in any sort of objective way after the fact, there is no meaningful difference between when the event occurred and in the meantime."
Chance, the city's special-events coordinator, insists spending has been prudent. "We've really been planning this for a long time and making every effort to keep costs to a minimum," she says. "Budgeting-wise, we knew it was coming, and the departments that were going to be directly impacted have been working on adjusting their hours and manpower based on the needs of a particular day."
Coates winces when he hears about plans to update tourist-information signs and resurface the streets around Busch Stadium. "If street signs need to be changed, why not just change them and not worry about having an All-Star Game?" he asks. "If a street needs to be repaved, why do we have to justify it based on this event? A lot of good stuff can get justified based on a crazy reason."
Says Charlie Brennan: "Everyone knows St. Louis doesn't have mountains or the ocean. We have to work harder at making downtown beautiful. Sometimes we wait for the Final Four or other activities to get into gear and clean up our area.
"I think that's all fine and good, but we should have an eye toward aesthetics 52 weeks a year, and not just when the national media visits. If we just go back to the old ways in August, it's just a fraud."
Marla Miller, who has overseen the planning of twelve previous All-Star Games, says it is not unusual for baseball's smaller markets to overcompensate when hosting baseball's star-studded gala.
"We've been to some cities that don't exude, by name, sparkle or pizzazz, but those are some cities that, in the end, really rise to the occasion," she says. "They feel like they have to do more to compete with the more traditional bigger cities that will get events or large conventions."
In St. Louis, where baseball is a matter of civic pride, intensive preparations are a natural inclination. Now, with downtown's facelift complete, event planners are mostly worried about things that are beyond their control.
"The best-case scenario is we have perfect weather, and it's safe and fun," Chance says. "That's my dream in a perfect world. The worst-case scenario is God-awful weather. Either it's hot or it rains. Or something bad happens — that would just be awful."
In the event of some misfortune, Chance and Cardinal fans can take comfort in knowing that baseball's midseason celebration quickly fades from memory. "It's big for St. Louis, and for the rest of the world, it's an awards show," says Will Leitch. "St. Louisans should say, 'Look at all this madness in the city for four days.' Then people will move on. Nobody remembers where it was two years ago."
Indeed, after the circus has left town, the local citizenry will wake to find that their home still has all the same old problems. But they'll also realize that Budweiser is still brewed here, that the Arch remains the tallest national monument and that ten World Championship banners hang inside Busch Stadium.
And, if nothing else, a certain hometown slugger just so happens to be the odds-on favorite to win the Home Run Derby.